I looked at Boldar now, the worry in his eyes stabbing me with guilt.
“I can’t stay cooped up in these walls forever,” I said. “You know I’ll lose my mind.” I chewed my lip in thought as he frowned. Two months ago, when I had visited the market I was swarmed. Nobody wished me harm, but it had frightened my guards. In retrospect, it had been quite comical to see the three strong men being swept away from my side by peasants and street people excitedly trying to get closer to me. But that was the only humorous part about that day. I’d been sickened by the push of bodies, the tear-filled eyes devouring me, the voices calling my name in absolute reverence.
I shivered at the memory. “I’ll tie back my hair and wear peasant’s clothing.” All three men chuckled, and I glared at them. “Why is that amusing?”
“Because no clothing will hide your face,” the youngest said.
“I’ll wear a hood of muslin cloth and keep my head down.”
“We’ll have to bring more soldiers,” Boldar insisted. “I won’t be separated from you again.”
I sighed. “If I’m crowded by an army of soldiers it will draw attention. You can alert the others and have them spread about the market or somewhere nearby, if you must, but give me space.”
Boldar grumbled, making me smile up at him.
“Just think,” I told him. “In a year I’ll be married off and you won’t have to be ordered about by me anymore.” The thought soured my mood.
His menacing scowl fell away, replaced by something akin to sadness.
“I know,” I said, patting his broad shoulder. “I’ll miss you too.”
Oh, how I adored the market. The lyrical shouts of vendors’ voices on the air. Laughing children running about with honeyed faces, waving sticks fashioned with ribbons. The scent of everything from shellfish to fresh herbs to food stalls where onions sizzled in deep pans. I smelled everything I could get my hands on. Bottles of lavender water. Candles with rosemary-infused wax. Mint oils to rub on one’s chest and feet during the sickness season.
I kept my hood low and my face down. Now and then I’d slide coins across a table to obtain items I knew Mother would never buy: deformed bottles and hand-colored scarves imperfectly sewn by local women with arthritic fingers and not enough money for proper glass forges. Mother’s goods came only from the mainland.
I felt the presence of Boldar and the other guards—more men than I’d requested—but they kept their distance. Their eyes on me felt overly obvious, but people were so involved in their own business that nobody seemed to notice. They would never expect one of the princesses to be walking alongside them at the market in a plain cloak that hung low over her face. The thrill of it never ceased.
Two hours into my excursion, and my basket was nearly filled with interesting, one-of-a-kind items. My favorite stall was saved for last. I approached the trinkets, reaching out to touch a wooden flower.
“Don’t touch unless your hands are clean,” the old crone snapped. “And I’ve got a stick long enough to whack anyone who tries to pocket the goods.” The vendor rapped a thick stick upon the table’s leg.
Without raising my head, I replied, “Yes, madam.”
Then she was quiet, allowing me to browse the animals and items, ranging from the size of an actual cat to as small as my palm.
“Do you carve them yourself, madam?” I asked.
She grunted in response. “My husband and son do.”
I ran my finger over the beak of a wooden gull. “They’re quite good.”
Another grunt and we spoke no more. I grinned to myself as I took up a tiny mountain lion cub. That was the exact moment I felt another person sidle up beside me. I tilted my head just enough to see the form and arm of a man. He took a lion bauble in his hand, running a finger along the mane. A bizarre sense of affection and heated, buzzing sensuality came over me and I had to swallow, shocked at my ridiculous reaction to a stranger. His hands were nice, and his forearms appeared strong, but such a tiny glimpse hardly warranted my body’s strong response.
“Just looking,” he said, his harmonious voice giving me a jolt. I nearly looked up, but realized he was talking to the vendor, not me. “I’ve never been to your island. It’s quite beautiful. I’m here for the day, passing through.”
Gods alive, his voice. It was warm and sultry, making me shiver under the mid-day sun. His accent was…worldly. Definitely a traveler. It’d been a long while since a male had piqued my curiosity. I turned a tiny fraction to try and see as much of him as I could without showing my face. His build was semi-tall and lean. I felt such a strong pull to move closer and look up that I scolded myself internally.
“That’s a cute one you’ve got there.” His perfect hand pointed to the cub between my fingers and I gasped inaudibly, setting it down quickly. I checked to be sure my shawl was still in place, as if that would avert his attention from me.
“Sorry,” he chuckled. “Didn’t mean to startle you.”
He spoke to me so normally, his voice lacking the mesmerized awe to which I’d become accustomed. I let out a shallow laugh of relief, realizing he hadn’t recognized me.
“It’s okay,” I finally responded, picking up the wooden cub once more. “This one reminds me of something that happened when I was a child.”
“And what’s that?” He leaned forward enough for me to see the bottom half of his face. I bit my bottom lip, momentarily stunned. I wasn’t one to care about male beauty. Most of the handsome boys and men I’d met in my life had egos to match, and I found prideful males to be undesirable. That wasn’t the impression I got from this stranger. I was actually considering telling him the story, which made me laugh again, my nerves fraying. Oh, Hades, why not? I peered down at the cub, remembering.
“When I was small, I came across an injured mountain lion cub and brought it home. My parents were furious and scared to death—its claws were enough to shred me—but I insisted on nursing it back to health. So, I did. And it never once scratched me, though I can’t say the same for my room’s furniture. I cried when I had to set it loose.”
I waited for him to laugh. To exclaim how foolish the female mind was. When he didn’t, curiosity got the best of me, and I lifted my chin enough to look at him. I’d only intended a quick glance, but the full effect of the handsome stranger’s dark features had my eyes darting back to him as soon as I’d pried them away.
For a long moment I searched his face as he searched mine. Whenever I met a male, it began with a sliver of hope that he might see past my appearance. That hope was never long lived. Each and every time, their eyes, then their bodies, then their minds went through a sickening sort of metamorphosis. I waited for the man’s dark eyes to glaze over, his mind to turn to enamored mush, and his body to spring into lustful possession, but he remained upright and clear eyed.
My heart set out on a nervous jog that turned into a sprint. What I felt from him was curiosity. Interest. Those were new to me. I had to look away. The handsome stranger still hadn’t responded to my childhood tale, and I began to feel like an idiot.
“I know,” I said, giving the precious cub one last look. “It was silly.”
“What?” His chin moved side to side. “No. I don’t consider a tender heart to be silly.”
He didn’t? Who was this man? I allowed myself to fully stare at him. In that moment, it was as if the two of us were in a bubble. Even with my face lifted, on display, nobody noticed me. Not the stall owner. Not passersby. Even my guards were keeping their distance. I felt miraculously alone with him. Intimate, even, especially as he studied me. I needed to know everything about him. We both opened our mouths at the same time.
“Where are you from?” I blurted as he asked, “What is your name?”
What is your name? Of all the questions he could ask. My parents said my name was well-known, even deep into the mainland. I dropped my eyes. I couldn’t chance telling him who I was. Not yet.
“I’m nobody,” I whispered. He blessedly didn’t press, so I peered up into his tanned face again. “What is your name?”
“Leodes,” he said.
Without meaning to, I repeated his name back to him, tasting each letter… “Leodes.”
His eyes widened the tiniest bit, his reaction making me smile because it all felt so sincere. I’d done a lot of people-reading in my life, and I thought…my gods…this young man might like me. Me. Not Princess Psyche, the name and human idol. Just a girl in a cloak talking about nothing.
But as I stood staring at his open face, it was like a sudden shadow passed over him. His body stiffened. His throat bobbed with a hard swallow.
“I’ve lost track of time. My boat will leave without me.”
My mind raced, panic overtaking me. He couldn’t go yet! I had to find out where he was from without being too forward. I began to babble without thinking. “I didn’t mean to keep you with my stories, sir. Thank you.”
“For what?” he asked.
“For…” What could I say without sounding desperate and sad? Well, I’d been honest so far. May as well continue. “Listening.” No male had ever truly listened to me. The kind of listening that went hand-in-hand with caring.